More Than 20 Years On, a Holiday Record Keeps Raising Money
By Nicole Wallace
In Philadelphia, Special
Olympics is rebuilding its program of sports training and
competition for young people
with intellectual disabilities.
The organization’s affiliate in
Thailand is taking the program
to the remote hill tribes in the
northern part of the country for
the first time, and volunteers in
the African nation of Djibouti
are building a brand-new Special Olympics chapter.
These three very different
projects all owe their existence
to a series of successful Christmas albums.
Over more than two decades,
the albums, titled A Very Special Christmas—which have
featured musical superstars
like Madonna, Run-DMC, U2,
and Stevie Wonder singing holiday fare—have generated more
than $100-million for Special
“It really has single-handedly enabled us to expand and
accelerate our operations internationally,” says J. Brady Lum,
president of Special Olympics,
which maintains headquarters
The album project is only one
factor that has helped the organization maintain its fund-raising momentum. The group
ranked at No. 94 in the most
recent Philanthropy 400, The
Chronicle’s annual ranking of
charities by private donations; it
raised $189.3-million over all in
2009, generating just under 2-
percent growth in a tough year
for giving. Since 1991, when The
Chronicle began keeping its list,
Special Olympics has ranked
eighth among all charities in
terms of its gain in private donations.
Money raised by the sale of the Special
Olympics A Very Special Christmas albums
has helped support the charity’s programs
around the world. For example, $7,000 went
to create a program in East Timor.
In 1987, when the music project began, the organization had
programs in roughly 70 countries, a number that has grown
to more than 170 nations.
To make sure the money went
to programs that benefit disadvantaged athletes, rather than
operations, the project’s founders—the record producer Jimmy
Iovine, his then-wife Vicki, and
Bobby Shriver, son of the Special Olympics founder Eunice
Shriver—created the Christmas Records Trust.
When the trust was founded,
there were “very passionate arguments” about the approach it
should take, says Kristy Hays,
director of strategic investments
at Special Olympics.
The central question, she
says, was “do we get the money
out the door to do the greatest
amount of good now, or are we
conservative, and do we try to
build the trust so that it will
continue to help more and more
programs over the long term?”
Eventually, the trustees de-
cided to steward the money for
the long haul. So far, album and
DVD sales have topped $57-mil-
lion, and investment income has
added another $47-million.
Records Trust has
made more than
$58-million in grants.
and pitch in on things like marketing and communications, but
it is the directors of the Christmas Records Trust, with their
connections to musicians, producers, and record companies,
who do the heavy lifting, says
“The trustees are the ones
who make this happen,” she
While the first A Very Special
Christmas album continues to
sell the most, the trustees have
sought to keep the series fresh
by moving into different genres,
such as Latin and country mu-
sic, and last year the trust put
together an album featuring
young performers, such as Mi-
ley Cyrus and Sean Kingston.
Growth in China
Special Olympics counts the
dramatic growth of its affiliate in China as one of the grant
program’s greatest successes.
While just 50,000 athletes took
part in the group’s activities in
2000, the organization expects
to see the participation of nearly
one million athletes by the end
of this year.
In 2006 the Christmas Records Trust made an $800,000
grant over five years to Special
Olympics China, which the affiliate used to spur additional
support, says Ms. Hays.
“They were able to go back to
their government and say, ‘We
have this. Will you match it?’”
she says. “And then, ‘Will you
double it?’ ”
At this point, the Chinese af-
filiate can pay for its own opera-
tions, says Ms. Hays, and it uses
grants from the trust to expand
into new provinces and experi-
ment with new ideas. She says
the trust is making grants in
India that it hopes will have a
similar catalytic effect.